Want to know how to get enough iron on a plant-based diet? Here are the best sources of iron for vegans and how to increase iron absorption with a few simple habits.
What is iron?
From pumping blood to boosting brain power – iron is an essential mineral that plays an important role in many bodily functions. These include blood production and transporting oxygen around the body, as well as assisting immune function, enzyme production, collagen synthesis and cognitive function.
Food sources of iron
Iron is found in food in two forms: haem and non-haem.
Haem iron is found in meat and animal products and is much more bioavailable (i.e. easily absorbed) than the non-haem iron, which is found in plant-based foods. This means that those following a poorly planned vegetarian or vegan diet are at an increased risk of becoming iron deficient. However, there are plenty of strategies that can be used to increase our ability to absorb non-heme iron. Here are the do’s and don’ts when it comes to maximising iron absorption as a vegan.
How to increase iron absorption
- Consume plant-based sources of iron with foods high in vitamin C (kiwi fruit, oranges, berries, parsley, spinach, lemons)
- Consume plant-based sources of iron with foods high in lysine (avocados, mangos, tomatoes, beans, peas, sweet potato, broccoli, asparagus)
- Cook in cast iron pots and pans
- Soak and sprout grains and legumes
Common habits that decrease iron absorption
- Consuming tannins with, or close to, meals (red wine, coffee and tea)
- Consuming calcium-rich foods with, or close to, meals (milk)
Recommended daily intakes of iron
The recommended daily intake of iron changes depending on age group and gender. Men and post-menopausal women require 8 milligrams of iron per day, women of childbearing age require 18mg per day, pregnant women require 27mg per day and breastfeeding women require 9mg per day.
As the absorption rates of iron differ, it’s recommended that those following vegetarian or vegan diets consume 1.8 times the recommended intake of iron. This is to account for the lower absorption rate of non-haem iron.
What happens if you don’t have enough iron?
Despite iron being found in many foods, iron deficiency is extremely common all around the world. Symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, dizziness, muscle cramps, weakness, shortness of breath, low blood pressure, headaches, brittle nails and a sore tongue. Prolonged iron deficiency results in anaemia, which is where there are fewer and smaller red blood cells, affecting their ability to transport sufficient amounts of oxygen around the body.
Top vegan sources of iron
1. Soybean Products (Tofu, Tempeh, Natto – cooked)
- 1/2 cup = 4.5mg
2. Sesame Seeds (cooked)
- 1/4 cup = 4.3mg
3. Lentils (cooked)
- 1/2 cup = 3.3mg
4. Spinach (cooked)
- 1/2 cup = 3.2mg
5. Kidney beans and chickpeas (cooked)
- 1/2 cup = 2.2 – 2.4mg
6. Swiss chard (cooked)
- 1/2 cup = 2mg
7. Quinoa (cooked)
- 1/2 cup = 1.4mg
8. Dried apricots
- 1/3 cup = 1mg
9. Pumpkin seeds
- 2 tbsp = 1mg
10. Peanut butter
- 1 tbsp = 0.60mg
Vegan iron-rich meal ideas
- 2 weetabix, 1 cup of soy milk, dried apricots and a drizzle of peanut butter = 7.7mg iron
- Lentil and spinach salad with cooked quinoa and a drizzle of tahini dressing = 13.4mg
- Swiss chard salad with spinach, crunchy chickpeas, roast tofu cubes and pumpkin seeds = 11.1mg
Fortified sources of iron
Many foods are also fortified with iron, which helps make it easier for people to reach their recommended daily intake. Examples of foods that are fortified with iron include breakfast cereals such as Weetabix, store-bought breads, flours and rice and also some beverages, particularly orange juice.
Iron testing and supplements
For those who are struggling to meet their iron intake through food or are meeting their recommended intake, but are still finding themselves with sub-optimal iron levels, iron supplementation may be necessary. Supplementation should always be discussed with your doctor, following assessment of your iron studies, which are a series of blood tests that carefully assess your iron levels.